Virtualisation company Parallels and graphics hardware vendor Nvidia have collaborated in the virtualisation of graphics-intensive applications used by engineers and digital animators.

The software, called Parallels Workstation Extreme, will enable multiple computer-aided design (CAD), seismic modeling, digital rendering and other applications to be run virtually on either Windows or Linux.

Virtualising such applications has generally been considered impractical because of the inability of virtualisation software from Parallels or VMware to render graphics or animation quickly. As a result, many engineers and animators today have multiple workstations at their desks, each of which is used to run one or two applications, according to Brian Good, vice president of business development at Parallels.

Now, he said, Parallels Workstation Extreme will enable users to run multiple graphics-rich apps side by side without having to reboot, because the software, rather than trying to process the multimedia within the virtualisation layer, offloads it back to the hardware layer, the graphics card. That allows users to enjoy "bare-metal performance," said Andrew Page, senior product manager for professional solutions at Nvidia. "It's letting the graphics card do what it does best."

Enabling the virtualisation software to offload rendering work back to the hardware layer was no trivial task, Good said, and it required a year of software engineering.

The software supports the OpenGL graphics API  used by most animation and engineering applications, instead of Microsoft's DirectX technology, which is popular for games.

Parallels Workstation Extreme also supports Nvidia's CUDA technology. For applications specially rewritten for it, CUDA enables the shifting of processing work from the CPU to the graphics processing unit, which is usually underutilized, for faster application performance.

Parallels Workstation Extreme will be available within six weeks and will cost US$400(£280), Good said.

But to enable high performance, each virtualised app must have a whole graphics card dedicated to it. Moreover, the card must be one of Nvidia's professional-grade graphics cards, such as its Quadro FX 3800, 4800 or 5800. The 3800 cards start at $1,199 each, according to Page. In addition, Parallels Workstation Extreme requires the latest in hardware. So far, Parallels has only certified its software to run on HP.'s Z800 workstation using Intel's new Nehalem processors, Good said.